Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

The Claim of Representation

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Capitol-SenateI’ve been talking a lot about politics as contested claim making, and how taking formal ideas like judicial review and democracy for granted distorts our understanding of politics. Related is the idea that a lot of analytic terms are really just justifications for the status quo, and we’d be better off finding a different set of terms that aren’t tied to such justifications.

This is different from the standard story of politics science, which says that the discipline used to confuse normative ideas for empirical ones, until the behavioralists (pdf) severed the ties between the two, thus truly becoming a science. Since that time, political theory (in essence, the study of normative ideas) has been a sort of odd fit in the discipline–not unlike judicial politics, although for different reasons.

It occurred to me that we need to do a better job distinguishing justifications not only from analytic idea, but also from normative ones.  I wonder what it would look like if someone attempted a defense of what the American political system is like that didn’t begin with abstract ideas we use to justify it, like democracy or separation of powers (or capitalism or markets). To take a few obvious examples, such a defense would need to contend with the structure of the Federal Reserve, independent from popular influence but structured to ensure it is responsive to the banks, or the national security state, that operates in secret and therefore largely without constraint.

But we rarely begin with a close examination of what is, rather than what we say should be.  Often times what, on the face of it, appear to be normative arguments, are really just rationalizations for some institution or political actor , that the speaker would never apply more generally. The key to understanding these is not simply to dismiss them or accept them, but to attend to when such claims are made and when they are accepted.

Semi-related to this, I recently ran across Michael Saward’s “The Representative Claim.”  He articulates and defends the idea that representation is not a fact but rather a contestable claim.  Such an approach severs normative ideals about what representation should be from the activity of claiming that one is doing it.  In addition, our focus on the formal representation of legislators standing for constituents obscures all sorts of other representation claims in politics.

Part of my goal is to place at centre-stage the necessary figure of the maker of representative claims about themselves and about their audiences. Just as representation is not a mere fact that ‘just is’, so representations (depictions, portrayals, encapsulations) of self and others in politics do not just happen. People construct them, put them forward, make claims for them — make them. More specifically, political figures (or political parties or other groups, for example) make representations of their constituencies, their countries, themselves. Crucially, these representations are an unavoidable part of a ‘substantive acting for’, and any theory of political representation must take them on board.

Seeing political figures as the makers of representative claims forces us to see in a new light more traditional views of the representative; for example, we need to move well beyond the mandate–independence, delegate–trustee frame for discussing political representation. Both of these perspectives assume a fixed, knowable set of interests for the represented: the capacity to be a ‘delegate’ or a ‘trustee’ is built precisely upon the more or less transparent knowability of the interests of the represented. However, constituencies can be ‘read’, inevitably, in various ways. At the heart of the act of representing is the depicting of a constituency as this or that, as requiring this or that, as having this or that set of interests. The character of the represented cannot be placed unproblematically to one side. I now set out the basic currency of analysis that can help us to do just that — the representative claim. (page 5)

This reminds me of Martin Shaprio and Alec Sweet Stone‘s argument that the triad – two disputants and an independent third-party who resolves the dispute–is a basic unit of governance. While we might think of courts as prototypical triads, not all courts or all court activity fits easily within it nor is it true that it doesn’t exist outside of courts.  In the same way, the prototypical representative claim may be that of a legislator claiming to represent constituents, but it is in no way limited to that.  Disconnecting the idea from the prototype helps us break out of conventional thinking and find insight beyond our standard, more narrow ways of thinking.

Saward’s argument highlights something I found in my research on the Mississippi tobacco litigation.  In litigation, the lawyers for the  parties (as well as intervenors, and amici) are required to formally state who they are and who they represent, and why these parties have an interest in the litigation.  But in addition, during the case I studied there was a great deal of conflict over who was being represented.  Did the state attorney general, who brought suit in the name of the state against the tobacco companies, represent the citizens of Mississippi, or his own political ambitions and the financial interests of the private lawyers who were on his legal team?  Were the lawyers for the defendants representing the interests of individual companies, or were they acting on behalf of the top tobacco companies? Did the governor, who supported the defendants, better represent the state’s citizens than the attorney general, or was he merely acting on behalf of ‘Big Tobacco’?  These arguments took place outside and inside the courtroom, although the rhetorics in these two areas were quite different.

Standard political science approaches dismiss all this.  I can’t show that this ‘talk’ influenced the judge’s ‘decision’ in any way. Never mind that the case, like practically all cases, was settled rather than resolved via formal decision. But it’s odd to see people expending a great deal of time and energy over something and then to simply dismiss it.  That the actors take it serious seems reason enough for the social scientist to do so (which is not the same as saying we should adopt whatever perspective those actors express).

Interestingly, I find Seward’s approach to be helpful for advancing both empirical and normative theory.

Written by David Kaib

January 13, 2013 at 5:41 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] broad latitude about how to go about it.  It’s easy to let the rhetoric around democracy and representation to obscure the realities of how politics works, and I think this is what’s going on here. […]

  2. […] on them and asking how well they measure up. The claim of public opinion is the flip side of the claim of representation, not something that should be taken as […]

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